Matthew Dear on the Music and Mysteries of Hohokum

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Matthew Dear  likes the game Hohokum. The electronic musician and DJ likes it so much that he and his label Ghostly International produced the soundtrack. That doesn’t mean they slapped a few songs together and called it a day—Hohokum is a multisensory art project where visuals and music merge seamlessly into a glorious union of sight and sound. Making the music for Hohokum meant more than just making music.

Dear’s work with Hohokum began as business, with Ghostly’s licensing guru pitching for the collaboration. When Dear learned more about the game and its artistic ambitions, though, he knew he had to be involved. “After seeing stills from the game, and hearing about the layering of music connected with advancing gameplay, I knew I wanted to be involved even more so,” he says. Once he was in Dear immediately “went to work on a new song written exclusively for the ending credits of the game.”

Dear didn’t follow his standard operating procedure while writing his song for Hohokum, though. “Usually, I am making music blindly, and can accompany that process with imaginary images in my head,” he says. “With a game like Hohokum, though, I’ve already got scenes, worlds, characters and storylines presented to me. It isn’t limiting, though, as one might think, but instead a bit more freeing, since those clear lines direct my creativity in very acute ways.”

When discussing Hohokum it’s tempting to break it down into its component parts of art, gameplay and music. As artist Richard Hogg and game designer Ricky Haggett discussed in our interview earlier this week, the art and gameplay of Hohokum go hand in hand. They inform each other constantly, and the game couldn’t exist without Hogg’s artwork or Haggett’s practical videogame applications of said artwork. So when Dear set out to work on music for the game, he couldn’t accomplish anything without talking to the artists whose vision defined the game. “We spoke several times throughout the song writing process,” he admits, “and they helped me hone in on the best lyrical narrative for my song.”

Dear doesn’t play videogames anymore, but when he did he was “into games like Toe Jam & Earl, Leisure Suit Larry and Sim City.” If you know anything about games, you know those three games are about as different as any three games could possibly be. That’s like saying you’re into TV shows like Adventure Time, Co-Ed Confidential and Ken Burns documentaries. The three have no connective tissue other than that they exist and in the same general medium.

Both that wide-ranging collection of influences and that distance from the contemporary gaming scene make Dear and the rest of his Ghostly International colleagues an inspired choice for the Hohokum soundtrack. He isn’t beholden to whatever game music trends might have otherwise influenced his contribution. His piece, “Pawn in Their Game”, is a catchy piece of electro-pop, a modern rendition of what Eno accomplished on Another Green World. Dear finds warmth in a type of music that’s often considered impersonal, and that synthesis of the robotic and handmade is a perfect fit for Hohokum.

Dear’s piece appears at a crucial juncture during the game, and so for him the hardest part of working on Hohokum was “living up to the hype. I mean, the end of the game is the biggest part of the experience. Once you’ve reached that point, it’s almost as if the gates of the universe are opening before you. I had to write some music that stood its ground accompanying such an achievement.”

Although this is the deepest collaboration Dear has had on a videogame, he was intimately familiar with some of the best game music ever recorded. “Zelda and Final Fantasy soundtracks still bring back a flood of great memories,” he gushes. And beyond his nostalgic appreciation for videogames, and his particular enthusiasm for Haggett and Hogg’s artististry, Dear was entranced by Hohokum’s exploration of liminality. “Hohokum is at the same time friendly and mysterious,” he explains. “Not many games can keep you floating in that space in between the unknown and the comfortable.”

Dear shows a deep understanding for Hohokum, but he might be wrong about one thing. The blissfully esoteric game might plunge headlong into the unknown, but it’s hard to not feel comfortable when you have the reassuring sounds of Dear and his Ghostly comrades coursing into your ears.

Garrett Martin is Paste’s games editor and reviews games for the Boston Herald. He’s written for Salon and the Boston Phoenix and will often bring up professional wrestling when talking about art or anything else. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.

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